There I was sprawled across our couch with a cup of tea to my left, a stack of cookbooks to my right, and Saturday Kitchen bumbling along with its forced laughs in the background; a familiar scene that happens most lazy Saturday mornings in our flat. I was ready to complete my favourite chore of the weekend: planning that week’s menu. What a rock and roll life I lead, eh? I had already spent the last ten minutes debating the merits of using up the rest of my gochujang in a Korean stew from ‘Our Korean Kitchen’, or making Tom Kerridge’s barbeque pineapple chicken for the hundredth time when I had a different brainwave. Flipping through our well-thumbed copy of his ‘Best Ever Dishes’ one more time, I decided to take a break from Tom’s recipes in my kitchen because I would rathertrythem out in his kitchen instead…
The thing is, the recipes in this book are quite involved. We’ve cooked from it many times but have rarely followed all the steps because unlike Tom, we don’t have the patience nor dedication; and yet, most dishes are still rib-tickling winners. So imagine how good his food must be when someone doesn’t cut corners. And with that thought I was sold. Alas, getting a table at The Hand and Flowers, Tom Kerridge’s two Michelin star pub, is easier said than done. It is notoriously hard to book, even harder if you also want a room reservation, as I did. Near impossible if you were looking for a specific day or date. Thankfully I was not; with the end of my work contract and the start of our travels looming, the one thing I did have on my side was flexibility. A random Tuesday night in two month’s time? Mission accomplished.
One of the first London life lessons I learnt was that one should plan ahead to avoid disappointment, which makes it even more hilarious that one of the last lessons I learnt was that even the best laid plans can be thrown into disarray. All it takes is one mistake, one mishap, or one big misunderstanding and the next thing you know, Oxford Circus tube station is closed and the restaurant you had your heart set on visiting for months decides to follow suit. And all because two drunkards got into an argy bargy, some noises were heard, and Chinese whispers ensued… but that’s another London life lesson right there.
So that was ‘goodbye big blow-out meal at Bonhams’ and ‘hello to plan B…’ which consisted of changing out of the glad rags, throwing a ‘why are people so silly’ tantrum, heading down to the cosy local bistro, and frantically scouring Opentable for a decent Saturday night reservation. I wasn’t hopeful but my luck was in and hey presto… hello to The Frog E1! Both of Adam Handling’s amphibian offerings have piqued my interest for some time now but they just kept being buried deeper and deeper in ‘the list’ so I thought Friday night’s woes might actually be Saturday night’s blessing in disguise.
This time last year I defied convention and proudly proclaimed that I had no fears about turning thirty. I was excited to start a new decade and experience all the thrills and inevitable spills that come with it, particularly as we had an inkling that it would most likely be our last year in London and I wanted to make the most of it. A year ago, I believed that I was entering my thirties content, happy, and hungry… and now that I have merrily made my way through the ups and downs, that statement still stands. Content with what I have in my life, happy with what I have achieved both online and offline, and hungry to eat, explore and create more. To me, this is what it means to grow up, not grow old.
For the last five years we have celebrated my birthday abroad either jetsetting to Hong Kong enroute to the Philippines, catching sunsets from the Malecon in Havana, or wining and dining in two of my favourite countries in Europe – Spain and Portugal. Last year’s celebrations were particularly special as they involved not only a certain someone but some of my closest friends in what has now become one of my favourite cities, Seville. This year we are back in the Southern hemisphere after packing up our London life and I was preparing myself for a low-key celebration back in New Zealand but true to tradition, we made the last minute decision to head abroad and we are currently in Melbourne!
As I hoisted myself into position at The Test Kitchen, a slight apprehension began to creep over me. What does one open themselves up to when they choose to dine in a restaurant where a ‘test’ is so crucial to the concept? Who is being tested here, the diners or the chefs, I wondered? A dear friend of mine thrives on ‘interesting’ dining experiences, so I imagine that he would be in his element, playing guinea pig to chef Adam Simmonds and his team. Whereas I, despite my fascination with ingredients, provenance, culinary wizardry, still dine by a much simpler litmus test – does it taste good and would I want to eat it again?
I would prefer dishes to have been tried and tested before they got to me, but then a certain someone rather pointedly reminded me that I also enjoy giving my two cents worth and this time the chefs actually welcome it. Touché. With no response, I pulled myself together and settled into my seat, which by the by, was not designed with petite people in mind, bracing myself for what was to come. The opening gambit, a small bowl of roasted pearl barley was an easy pass. Parsley gave the nutty barley a green glow and freshness, the garlic was faint yet warming, and all finished off perfectly with crispy shallot rings!
There are very few places in the City where I find myself wanting to linger a little longer, it’s just not the done thing in this part of town. People are more likely to be strutting from meeting to meeting, sweet-talking themselves into networks and closing deals, and the spaces are equally sharp and business-like. In a world where time is money, no one can afford to linger around too long… which is what makes Bar20 at Birleys even more of an anomaly. Sitting pretty in the shadow of the Walkie Talkie building, the location couldn’t be more City if it tried… but inside, it feels more like Mayfair.
Bar20 at Birleys is part of the Robin Birley portfolio which explains the private members club atmosphere; it’s plush and refined but still very relaxed. I get the feeling that the breakfast and lunch rush does have a certain City spirit and speediness to it, but in the evenings the bar descends to a pace which is perfect for those of us who have the luxury of time. We settled into a table by the window but I would have just as happily cosied into any of the corners under the eye-catching and conversation-evoking artwork (which is courtesy of Mr Birley’s private collection) or lounged on one of the large sofas in the centre of the room.
When did cooking become a spectator sport? I can just remember the days when chefs had reputations for being sweary, pot-swivelling hot-heads who were best kept behind the closed doors of the kitchen. In my youth, I had ventured beyond those doors into my dad’s restaurant kitchens a few times… they were hot, sweaty, generally loud, and usually frenetically paced. To the uninitiated, they were chaotic, but my dad assured me that there was always a rhythm in amongst the noise. Times have changed since those days. I’m sure that many chefs are still as hot-headed but the doors have been flung open and not only do people want to taste their food, people want to see the chefs cooking it too. How many restaurants have we all been to where the kitchens are visible from the dining room? How many times have you not so subtly rejoiced in that discovery?
Perhaps not as many times as me but admit it, you enjoy being a beady-eyed kitchen watcher as much as the next person because the inner workings of a professional kitchen can be fascinating. More and more restaurants are being designed with these ringside kitchen seats in mind, while others are choosing to let a select few be up close and personal at the chef’s tables they put inside their kitchens. Then there are restaurants like Kitchen Table who really take it to the extreme – one kitchen, one u-shaped bar wrapped around it, twenty chairs – that’s it. It doesn’t sound like much, but there is a bum on every seat, every night the restaurant is open and diners willing to pay a not so insignificant amount for the pleasure of sitting there, especially when you throw caution to the wind and opt for the wine pairing too.
After a quick scan of the menu, a certain someone and I collectively, and subconsciously, let out a little yelp of surprise. Here we were at a brand-spanking new restaurant and there were no freakazoid multi-patty burgers on offer, nothing that could magically turn into a made-for-instagram rainbow in a bowl, and we didn’t have to google any obscure ingredients from far flung corners of the world. We also didn’t have to strain our voices conversing with each other across the table or strain our eyes trying to read the menu in the first place. My dear friends, I cannot express enough what a luxury that was! That’s not to say that the new Tom Simmons in Tower Bridge isn’t chic; it’s quite a sleek affair, it’s just not foolishly trying too hard.
Perhaps the only on-trend aspect is that Simmons’ heritage, Welsh in this case, is brazenly displayed throughout the publicity and communications surrounding the restaurant – this seems to be a key element in marketing these days and it often works. Personally, I like a chef who knows their roots, and thankfully, Simmons also knows how to be subtle about it in the dishes. Welsh ingredients infiltrate the menu, but even so, at no point did it feel like a gimmick. In light of all the aforementioned food fads littering restaurant menus all over London, it was nice to see a new player executing some old tricks with their own flair for a change.